Learning Targets: Three Key Understandings for Teachers

“Before I started writing learning targets, I don’t think I was really teaching lessons that were actually aligned with standards. In fact, I think a lot of my lessons were more activities than lessons. Now that I use learning targets, I know exactly what it is that I’m teaching and  more importantly, my students know exactly what they are learning!”             -Sarah, First Grade Teacher

Many teachers can probably relate to Sarah’s experience with learning targets. I can remember back when we first began to think about making objectives visible. I often walked classrooms with principals and school leaders and saw lists of “SWBAT’s” posted. (It seemed as if these objectives were more for the principal than they were for the student, or the teacher for that matter.) Later, we moved from posting objectives to posting purpose statements. We changed our language from “SWBAT” to “I can______ by_______.”  Purpose statements helped us begin to think more about students and their learning, as opposed to teacher centered instructional outcomes.



Now, we’ve gotten even smarter about making the path to daily learning visible for students. We’ve moved from purpose statements to learning targets. Here are three key understandings I think are helpful when beginning to use learning targets effectively:

Key Understanding One: Not to be confused with objectives, learning targets are written to guide learning. Well crafted learning targets describe three key elements of a lesson:

Chalkboard Learning Target.jpg

I like to think about  the three elements of a learning target as the skill, the strategy or reasoning needed for the lesson, and why the skill should be learned. Learning targets ensure that both the teacher and student have laser sharp clarity of the learning for a daily lesson. When teachers and students both use the learning target as part of the lesson, they know what they are aiming for, how they will get there, and why it’s relevant.  The teacher should not only have the learning target posted, he/she should refer to it when opening the lesson, while guiding students through the lesson, and while closing the lesson.

Key Understanding Two: Writing learning targets involves multiple steps. In order to write a clear learning target, the teacher must first determine the essential knowledge or skill  for the lesson. Next, the teacher must ask what thought-demanding processes or cognition is required? And finally, why would someone need to learn this? In order to insure the lesson is appropriate in challenge and rigor, it is essential to align the target with grade level standards. Learning targets are not synonymous with standards, rather learning targets are the  intended learning based on the standard. Since learning targets also include the cognition or thinking necessary for the learning, it may be helpful to use a tool, such as the Depth of Knowledge Wheel (DOK), developed by Norman Webb, when writing LT’s.

KEY Understanding Three: Both the teacher and the student should also know what it will look like when the learning target has been mastered. For this reason we also include strong criteria for success. To be effective, the success criteria must be specific to the learning target. Success criteria answers the question from the student’s perspective: “How will I know when I’ve mastered the learning target?” Success criteria makes meaningful learning visible to the teacher and the student.

Strong criteria precisely describes what good work looks like for the specific performance of understanding in the lesson (Brookhart & Moss, 2012).

Here’s an example of a learning target written for a sixth grade literacy lesson. Slide1.jpg